A place for bosom buddies: Salons spread awareness about cancer

The balls on this keychain represent the size of breast cancer tumours at different stages of detection, says Professor Dr Teo Soo Hwang. 

Hairdressers are chatting to their clients about breast cancer, and they know the facts.

WHEN Rawang-based beautician and hairstylist Ruthra Ganesan first spoke of “The Big C”, it was to her regular clients. Some fidgeted in their seats and were reluctant to continue the conversation.

But it wasn’t the usual casual banter that Ruthra was after – as a “Boob Buddy” recruit, she wanted to pass on what she knew about breast cancer in a bid to raise awareness on the disease.

Now it may seem strange to lump hairdressers along with breast cancer education, but the idea is to tap into the hairdressers’ rapport with their clients.

“Nobody likes going to the clinics, but everybody loves the salon. It’s somewhere safe and comfortable where people go to look good and feel good.

“Instead of painting a grim picture, hairdressers usually have a way with words and we’re hoping that they can start their clients talking about breast cancer and help alleviate some of the fears associated with the disease,” says non-profit cancer research laboratory Carif’s chief executive and breast cancer research group leader Professor Dr Teo Soo Hwang.

Despite various Pink Ribbon campaigns, especially during Breast Awareness Month in October, the messages have not translated into behavioural change. Early detection of breast cancer saves lives, but knowing this has not prompted more women to check for signs of breast cancer.

Carif’s new initiative is to get people comfortable talking about cancer. To encourage this, they have launched the “Be Frank: Hairdressers Programme”, a breast cancer awareness outreach campaign aimed at reaching out to women at the grassroots level.

Hence, local hairdressers are recruited as Boob Buddies to help impart and spread information on breast cancer.

It is, however, easier said than done, especially in a feel-good environment like the hair salon.

“Some were willing to talk but most of them avoided the topic. Once you bring up the word ‘cancer’, some people would shut down completely.

“There are those who don’t even know the basics, and there are those who know but aren’t bothered to go for a screening.

“I think I was scaring my customers away for a bit at first, but I never gave up. So far, I’ve managed to give out quite a number of Boob Buddy packs – some clients have even returned for more to share with their family members,” says Ruthra, 26.

Hairdressers are educated on breast cancer, and trained to talk about its related facts. They are equipped with “Boob Buddy” packs, which include free mammogram vouchers for women above 40, a breast self-examination booklet, a list of Lembaga Penduduk dan Pembangunan Keluarga Negara (LPPKN) clinics that offer subsidised or free mammogram screenings and a “bead on a string” keychain symbolising the different stages of breast cancer if left undetected.

Shah Alam-based hairstylist ­­­Norliza Mohd Hashim, 48, spent a lot of time debunking myths for her clients, who had the impression that mammogram screenings were “scary”.

“A lot of my clients were concerned about pain –‘Mammograms are painful’ they told me. Some even believed that going for a mammogram would make them more susceptible to breast cancer.

The balls on this keychain represent the size of breast cancer tumours at different stages of detection, says Professor Dr Teo Soo Hwang. 

“It helps that I’ve undergone a mammogram, so I could assure my clients that the procedure is anything but painful. You may feel a slight discomfort during the test, but that’s about it,” shares Norliza.

The free mammogram voucher in the Boob Buddy pack is usually the clincher when it comes to convincing clients to go for a check-up, she adds.

Taking action

Funded by Berjaya Cares Foundation, Sime Darby Foundation and a partnership between National Cancer Society Malaysia and Philips, the Hairdressers Programme is inspired by a study done in the United States where African-American barbershops were recruited for prostate cancer education. African-American men bear a disproportionate burden of prostate cancer diagnosis and mortality and getting the barbershops involved was one way of reaching out to them.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Malaysian women – one in 19 will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the age of 85. Based on data from Hospital Kuala Lumpur and University Malaya Medical Centre, 30% to 60% of Malaysian women tend to be diagnosed at later stages of the disease (stage three and four).

In South Korea, the average size of a breast cancer tumour, at the time of detection, is 1cm. The country’s five-year survival rate (percentage of patients who live at least five years after being diagnosed with cancer) stands at 91%.

In contrast, Malaysia’s five-year survival rate stands at 50%. The average size of a breast cancer tumour is 5½cm upon detection, which is roughly the size of a clenched fist.

As Dr Teo puts it: “We can keep discovering new cures for cancer in the lab, but nothing beats early detection. In Singapore, the average size of a breast cancer tumour is less than 2cm at the time of detection. The country’s five-year survival rate is 83%. The results are startling, compared to Malaysia.

“What we need is better education on the topic, and it can now start with going to the hairdressers’.”

Launched early last year, the ‘Be Frank: Hairdressers’ Programme went on to win the country’s “Best Screening Programme Proposal” award at the Philips Best Breast Cancer Screening and Awareness Competition 2013.

It has so far been adopted by 16 hairdressing organisations in the Klang Valley. Participants were sent to a one-day training session conducted by consultant breast surgeon Datuk Dr Yip Cheng Har, consultant radiologist and head of imaging department Dr Evelyn Ho, Reach to Recovery board member and breast cancer survivor Ranjit Kaur as well as Dr Teo.

Come April 21, Carif will be organising another one-day training session at Sime Darby Medical Centre in hopes of reaching out to even more hairdressing organisations in the country.

Billy Lim, who is the president of the Malaysian Hairdressers Association, urges his fellow hairdressers to join in to support the cause. “Carif made the right move in choosing hairdressers as partners for this cause. It’s the first time we’re involved in something like this and it’s challenging but at the same time, exciting.

“There’s a whole lot we can do and it boils down to urging people into action. Because let’s face it, what’s the point of awareness without action? We can all do our part, no matter how small, to help save lives,” says Lim, 50.

“What we’re asking the hairdressers to do is not to suddenly become experts on breast cancer. It’s about the sharing of knowledge and how this knowledge can be used to save lives. We are really pleased that our local hairdressers are brave enough to take on this cause,” Dr Teo shares.

To sign up for the ‘Be Frank: Hairdressers Programme’, contact the Be Frank Outreach programme head Datin Dr Amyza Saleh (03-5639 1874 / 1969 or e-mail amyza.saleh@carif.com.my).

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